Gerald Seymour, The Collaborator

12410702I spent one of the most wonderful fortnights of my life in Naples; I’ve also read Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah and thought the film made of it was brilliant, particularly the fact that they filmed at the “Vele”, the gigantic apartment complex that dominates Scampia, one of the wretchedly poor and indelibly criminal banlieus of Naples. The film “Gomorrah” seemed to me like an Italian version of “The Wire”, the inhabitants of the Vele as trapped in their customary roles – drug addicts, drug dealers, criminals – as any of the denizens of Baltimore’s West Side.

Why am I mentioning all of this? Because in The Collaborator, the story of a Mafia princess who is driven to turn against her family by a great wrong done to someone she loves, Gerald Seymour managed to bring back in Technicolor both my good (personal) and terrible (literary/cinematic) memories of Naples. Immacolata Borelli is a great character – she’s hard, cold, cruel, and sometimes self-righteous, but she also ends up being as immaculately brave as her name suggests. The Collaborator isn’t only her story, though; it’s also the story of Eddie, the young Englishman who fell in love with her and the thug Salvatore who’s never known another life and of Lukas, a hostage negotiator who’s “the best of the best.” And I think therein lies the reason why I didn’t completely love this novel (although I liked it very, very much!) Lukas’s thoughts just weren’t as Immacolata’s, even though on paper he was probably the most interesting of them all. I also wish Seymour had given us a little more to chew on, about why exactly, Immacolata felt so strongly about this particular friend that the friend’s tragic fate moved her to her great act of betrayal (from the perspective of her family) or renunciation of evil (from the perspective of everyone else.) We never got enough background on this, I think – was it the normality of the girl’s life that appealed to her, as tainted as she was by her own family’s criminality? Or was it just that the girl treated her as a person, rather than as the principessa of the Borelli clan. Given that Immacolata does all she does because of this friend, I felt that there should have been more information provided to us about her. Also, honestly, Eddie was kind of a dumbass, even though I did come to admire his courage under duress; if a girl won’t tell you her last name, give you her mobile number, or let you come to her place, chances are she’s just not that into you, Eddie! And if only he’d just recognized that fact, maybe a couple of people wouldn’t have been killed.

Still, The Collaborator was leagues above the quick suspense read I was expecting when I picked the book up at a charity booksale because it was about Naples; Seymour created an atmospheric, well-written, and almost unbearably tense portrait of a city and a woman in conflict between their best and worst selves, and I found a new-to-me author whose work I look forward to exploring!

(Read from January 12-January 14, 2013)

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Gillian Bradshaw, Hawk of May

10727869T. H. White’s The Once and Future King was one of the trio of formative reading experiences at about age ten for me (along with the Narnia books and the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and ever since I read it, I’ve been an avid reader of anything Arthurian. Gillian Bradshaw’s Arthurian trilogy, in which the primary character is Gwalchmai (Bradshaw’s version of Gawaine), begins with Hawk of May, in which the young Gwalchmai grows up a semi-outcast at the court of his father Lot, in Orkney. Bradshaw eliminates two of the Orkney brothers of most legend (bye, Gareth and Gaheris) and has Gwalchmai as the middle child between the somewhat loutish warrior Agravaine, and the child Medraut (Mordred). Lot favors Agravaine, and despises Gwalchmai for his love of music and his different style of fighting, which makes Gwalchmai susceptible to his mother Morgause’s desire to teach him dark magic. The first half of the book details Gwalchmai’s struggles with his darker self while the second half focuses on his desire to join Arthur’s band of warriors and fight beside them.

The first time I read this novel, I was focused on the poetry of Bradshaw’s language (which is lovely) and I think that clouded my memory of some of the things I don’t love about the novel – I don’t think Bradshaw does a great job of incorporating the supernatural into her determinedly historical take on Arthur (there’s a voyage to the court of Lugh that I just found a bit much to take this time around) and Gwalchmai goes from being kind of a klutz to being a brilliant warrior a little too quickly. Still, it’s a wonderful version of the legend, Gwalchmai is extremely appealing as a hero, and Morgause is genuinely terrifying. This one’s a keeper, and I’m planning to re-read the other two books of the trilogy whenever I can steel myself to the inevitable tragedy that attends all versions of Arthur’s legend.

(Read from January 13-14, 2013)

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Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

13507212If I had one quibble with the spectacular Wolf Hall, it was that Thomas Cromwell seemed a little too good to be true: tolerant (as opposed to Thomas More’s fanaticism), erudite, loyal, completely sympathetic. Well, Bring Up the Bodies, which is, if possible, even better written and more gripping than Wolf Hall, also addresses my quibble about whether Cromwell was too good be true by showing his far darker side via his role in the downfall of Anne Boleyn.

Cromwell is still the urbane and clever man we met in Wolf Hall (and he’s still loyal to the long-dead Wolsey, as he shows with spectacular effect) but if one part of him destroys Anne and her “lovers” as revenge for Wolsey, another much greater part of him does what he thinks he must to appease the monster he serves. (A colleague tells him “it is not so much, who is guilty, as whose guilt is of service to you” and that is, indeed, the case.)

Because Henry really is a monster – a giant overgrown toddler, whose destructive whims are backed by the power of his absolutism, and because Cromwell knows that he owes all that he is – his wealth and power – to Henry, a large part of his job consists of discerning what Henry wants before Henry even knows he wants it, and in absolving Henry of all the nasty parts of the exercise of power, such as the deaths of innocents and the betrayals of friends. And for all Cromwell’s love of individualism against the massed power of the Church, he also introduces the idea of criminal thoughts, which we, or I, at any rate, associate so strongly with 20th century dictators; under Cromwell, it’s now a crime in England to even think of the King’s death, because thought is father to the deed (but then one has to ask what all the people who so anxiously fret over the King’s lack of an heir doing BUT thinking of the aftermath of the King’s death?)

The chapter on Anne Boleyn’s arrest, culminating in her rigged trial and execution, is chilling and extraordinarily powerful – her trial (and that of her purported lovers) is a Stalinist show-trial centuries before Stalin; you may have read countless accounts of what transpired, but Mantel does it better. It’s even more chilling (and tragically ironic) to think that we know, though Cromwell does not, that Henry will turn on him as he turned on Anne.

(Read from January 4-January 12, 2013)

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Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

wolf hallIt took me about a hundred pages or so to get used to the novelty of present-tense in a work of historical fiction (as well as the constant references to Thomas Cromwell as “he”) but Wolf Hall is so absorbing, Mantel’s Cromwell so charming, and her evocation of Tudor London so powerful that I have to say her stylistic choice was absolutely perfect. You probably already know the outlines of the story (Henry VIII’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn leading to his contested divorce with Catherine of Aragon and the end of England’s ties to Rome) so it’s the telling of this tale that is so outstanding; Mantel goes well beyond the facts of the matter and she’s one of the few novelists of Tudor England whom I’ve read (and yes, I’ve read lots because I’m fascinated by the period!) who realizes England wasn’t in a vacuum – Cromwell knows German scholars and Italian merchants and even the minor characters like Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, just leap off the page. I know I will be re-reading this, though first I will, of course, read the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, which sounds just as good!

(Read from January 2-January 4, 2013)

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Emma Bull, War for the Oaks

ImageI first read Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks in 2001, and I really liked it at the time, perhaps because this novel was my first experience of urban fantasy and it seemed terribly original, fresh and new (as it probably was when it was first published in 1987.) The intervening dozen years, and many other excellent “urban fantasy” novels I’ve read in the interim haven’t been so kind to my first impressions of War for the Oaks, however; on this re-read I noticed not only that the cultural references were weirdly dated, and that the question of why, exactly, only Celtic mythological figures were present in modern-day Minneapolis was never addressed at all (where were the native American gods/spirits/myths whose names were evoked all over the place names mentioned in the novel?) but also that the characterization was incredibly thin. There was precisely one character whom I found interesting (and who was never explored) and even the phouka, whom I’d enjoyed the first time around, was a fairly standard romance novel character except for occasionally turning into a dog. Also, I don’t think Emma Bull did herself any favors with the overly-detailed descriptions of the frankly goofy-looking clothing everyone was wearing and of the music that Eddi and her band played (I think the only writer I’ve ever read who managed to make the process of composition interesting in and of itself was Thomas Mann!).

I still give this novel some kudos for introducing the idea of urban fantasy (and for introducing me to the genre!) but I’d have to say that if someone wanted to read a far more thoughtful look at what might happen when the gods of the Old Worlds came to the new, I’d recommend Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. And the next time I want to read a novel about the intersection of mythology and music, I’ll go back to the perennially fascinating Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones.

(Read on January 1, 2013)

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Jo Graham, Black Ships

Reading (and translating) the Aeneid was one of the highlights of my high-school Latin classes, but somehow I was never able to warm up to Aeneas, perhaps because of how he treated Dido. Even at that early (and for me, somewhat unenlightened!) age, I was completely sympathetic to Dido’s side of things; she showered love and affection on Aeneas, and he said that he loved her too, and then it was all “nope, have to go found this mystical city off in the wilds of Latium, sorry!” Thanks to that episode, I must confess that I was always secretly cheering for Turnus in the end, even though he was doomed to lose his life and his fiancée, Lavinia, since Aeneas was the mystical great-great-great-something-or-other-granddaddy of Augustus Caesar for whom Virgil was providing this mythopoetic rival to the Iliad and the Odyssey in order to provide Caesar with divine descent.

Jo Graham’s Black Ships is a re-imagining of the Aeneid from the POV of Gull, who apparently is destined to become the Cumaean Sibyl after having many adventures with Aeneas and his gang along the way. Graham actually makes me really like Aeneas, and by substituting a kind of nutty Egyptian princess named Basetamon who wants to keep Aeneas’s corpse around to join her in the afterlife for Dido, this Aeneas is a bit less of a cad to me! I love the simple, yet powerful language that Graham uses, and she won me over right from the beginning by stating that one of her main inspirations was Michael Wood’s marvellous TV series (and accompanying book), In Search of the Trojan War (though given that this was written in 2007-2008, I think she might have used a bit more recent scholarship too!) Gull herself is a fascinating (and not too anachronistic-sounding) character, and I like the glimpses of others whom we meet along the way, as well as Graham’s explanation of the “Sea Peoples” and the Sack of Troy Redux.

I only have two relatively minor quibbles with the book: The first is that, unlike Homer, Virgil was inventing a mythology from whole cloth in many ways, and that’s why, anachronistic or not, the princess whom Aeneas loves and leaves HAD to be Carthaginian, because that’s Virgil’s explanation for the sworn enmity between Rome and Carthage (and it was victory over Carthage in the end that made Rome a great power, not victory of Egypt.) So I find the Egyptian interlude a bit unsettling, though fascinating. Secondly, and this point is REALLY minor, but I wish that she hadn’t decided to make Aeneas tromp around under the rather silly-sounding nickname of “Neas.” No one else (except Xandros, but that one actually sort of makes sense!) has a nickname, and it keeps making me think the character is a little boy. (I know he’s meant to be young, not the patriarch of Virgil’s imaginings, but still …)

(Read from May 5 to May 6, 2010)

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Marjane Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis

It took me a while to get used to the graphic format of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical Persepolis in which she tells the story of her childhood in revolutionary Iran and her adolescence in staid Vienna and eventual return to Iran. I’m still not sure I LOVE the format, but I did really like the book, and I appreciated that Satrapi was always fairly unsparing of herself and her own behavior (which, sometimes, was a bit reprehensible!)

I did wonder, at the end, though, how young people who don’t come from the privileged background of Satrapi’s family felt about the religious regime and its draconian rules. Were poorer families – who could not afford to send their sons abroad to escape obligatory military service – more or less bitter about the Iran-Iraq war? Did they accept the regime’s version (that their sons were martyrs) or did they yearn to speak the truth as well? All interesting questions that I hope further reading will help me to parse.

(Read from May 4-May 5, 2010)

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